Your official preview of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs.
The play-in matches are done. The bracket is set. In a single-elimination tournament, 16 teams will battle for the 2019 USL Championship title, including Louisville City FC, the two-time defending champions, and Phoenix Rising FC, the record-breaking side this season. We preview all of the conference quarter-finals.
(All Key players stats are from the regular season)
#1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. #10 Birmingham Legion FC
PGH: Tobi Adewole (99 clearances,32 starts), Kenardo Forbes(83% pass success rate, 74 key passes), Kyle Morton (24 starts, 13 clean sheets)
BHM: JJ Williams (8 goals, winner against NCFC), Zachary Herivaux (41.9 passes per match, 84.8% passing accuracy) Matt Van Oekel (11 clean sheets, 77 saves)
Well, what could’ve been stop number two on the Austin Da Luz retirement tour becomes a surprisingly tricky matchup where Pittsburgh are going to look to really exercise some demons. After last year’s stunner of a playoff exit, the Hounds are back with a purpose. That and the best possible draw out of the play-in round. Birmingham found some rare footing late in the season with wins over Indy XI and New York Red Bulls II but their minus 16 (playoffs baby) goal differential puts them in rare company. The Riverhounds are who everyone thought they were, except that if anything Bob Lilley seems to be better at coaching now then he ever has been. They’ll play compact, try to control the game, and wait for Birmingham to make a few mistakes on their SlamBall-esque pitch.
Don’t discredit Legion though. Sure they don’t score (35 goals for, worst in the top 10) and the aforementioned goal differential tells you about their defense, but they have guys that can put in work and get goals. JJ Williams was the heartbreak kid in Cary after a stoppage-time golazo. He comes in at 6’4 and 200lbs listed which would prove a bit of a challenge for the Riverhounds backline. Zachary Herivaux is another sneaky player that has some wonderful vision on the ball. The tricky part for predicting Birmingham is Williams and Herivaux have 22 appearances each. In fact, Legion have one player with 34 appearances and it’s Prosper Kasim. He’s had his moments sure, but seven goals over the whole season (plus one) don’t really strike fear into the hearts of the Hounds defense. Realistically if there’s anything here for Birmingham it’s going to come off set pieces and sweaty goals like their win against North Carolina.
Saturday, 3:00 PM EST, Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh PA
#2 Nashville SC vs. #9 Charleston Battery
NSH: Daniel Rios (20 goals, 82 shots), Matt Pickens (league-leading 14 clean sheets, 16 goals conceded), Lebo Moloto (10 assists, five goals)
CHS: Zeiko Lewis (7 goals, 5 assists) Jarad van Schaik (1619 passes, 76.8% success rate) Joe Kuzminsky (94 saves)
Nashville get a bit more favorable draw at the 2 seed instead of the 8 seed from last year. Another positive is a lot of that squad is here. Daniel Rios is probably your favorite POTY candidate not named Solomon Asante and Matt Pickens is apparently the Bob Lilley of goalkeeping, and my vote for Goalkeeper of the Year. Lebo Moloto is top-5 in assists and has been and will be trouble for Charleston. That being said recent results are all over the place and if you’re Nashville, well, you’re hoping to finish the game off in 90.
Charleston are ironically enough middle of the pack in both goals conceded (45) and clean sheets (8) with a troubling away form being the reason for some defensive woes. They cleaned up and haven’t allowed over 2 goals since a September tilt against Atlanta United II. Zeiko Lewis has finally found a house that feels like home in the Battery, even helping right Bermuda’s ship to their first Gold Cup appearance this year. He’s been somewhat sporadic, but he’s got power and class and swagger and well, Charleston are going to need some help there. Center back anchors have been Mike Anhaeuser’s ace for as long as USL has been in existence and while Jarad van Schaik might be a bit older than your Forrest Lasso’s of old, he’s been just as effective. Not necessarily the offensive threat that fellow center-back AJ Paterson is, he’s a no-nonsense CB, perfect for what the Battery need to do.
Saturday, 8:00 PM EST, First Tennessee Park, Nashville, TN
#3 Indy Eleven vs. #6 New York Red Bulls 2
IND: Tyler Gibson (3040 minutes, 1797 successful passes), Ayoze (5 assists, 82 key passes) Thomas Enevoldsen (14 goals, 6 assists)
NYRB: Jared Stroud (15 goals, nine assists), Christopher Lema (league-leading 94 chances created, six assists), Jordan Scarlett (67 interceptions, 23 blocks)
The reincarnated Indy Eleven haven’t quite been able to find their title-winning form in this life, though two playoff appearances in two years (with 2018 coming on short notice) isn’t anything to be negative about. Ironically they get to return to the friendly confines of IUPUI for this home game, which might see a big home-field advantage at play. That being said, with former USL Team of The Year players like Ayoze (2018 second team) and USL all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly, Indy are looking to make some noise in the playoff tilt. All season, they’ve had the players and the talent and the history to break away from the pack, but seemingly got a bit lost in the shuffle in October. Centrally, it’ll be on Tyler Gibson trying to run the midfield with his metronome-like presence and unreal passing numbers. Gibson won’t have the opportunity to take extra or wasteful touches against the Red Bulls patented press, so expect a quick pace in this one.
Red Bull II are still here and very much seem to be inevitable in the USL playoffs, much to the dismay of the independent purists. Jared Stroud, Chris Lema, and Jordan Scarlett are, or should be, big names for the Baby Bulls, but I’d be more worried about players that recently had their MLS seasons come to an end. Rece Buckmaster (no relation) has the chance to be a curveball and would immediately give RBII a big boost on the outside. Tom Barlow is another first-team name who could find his way down and give anyone fits up top. Part of what makes New York so reliable is in part their unreliability, and John Wolyniec should get all of the credit for being able to juggle lineups the way he does.RBII should look to apply pressure carefully for the first half, before going all out and trying to tire Indy into mistakes for counter-attacking opportunities.
Saturday, 7:30 PM EST, The Mike (Michael A Carroll Stadium, IUPUI) Indianapolis, IN
#4 Louisville City FC vs. #5 Tampa Bay Rowdies
LOU: Paco Craig (114 aerial duels won, 108 clearances), Oscar Jimenez (90 chances created, seven assists), Magnus Rasmussen (13 goals, 27 shots on target)
TBR: Sebastian Guenzatti (18 goals, 64 fouls won), John McCarthy (71 saves, 10 clean sheets), Leo Fernandes (10 assists, 66 chances created)
Groans about playing surface aside, this could have been the Eastern Conference Final. Reigning and defending a second time over, Louisville looks to establish themselves as the most dominant franchise in USL. The road to that feat starts against Tampa Bay, who are maybe one of two teams out East that can step to LouCity pound for pound. This should be appointment viewing and is maybe the best matchup on paper for the first round.
Instead of the reigning champions, it’s Tampa Bay that sit in the top-1o for both goals scored and fewest goals conceded. Guenzatti and Fernandes are one of the best duos in the league and they can break the match open. With Louisville City’s playoff pedigree, they will hope to be the more composed side in front of their home crowd. Neither side could get a win against one another this season, but somebody has to move on after this one.
Saturday, 7:00 PM EST, Slugger Field, Louisville, KY
#1 Phoenix Rising FC vs. #8 Austin Bold FC
PHX: Solomon Asante (league-leading 22 goals, league-leading 17 assists), Junior Flemmings (15 goals, seven assists), Zac Lubin (13 clean sheets, 79 saves)
AUS: Andre Lima (14 goals, 76 shots), Sean McFarlane (12 assists, 53 chances created), Diego Restrepo (eight clean sheets)
Phoenix Rising FC only lost four matches this entire USL Championship season. One of those defeats was to their opponents this weekend, Austin Bold FC. In fairness, the next time they played, Phoenix blew the doors off of Austin in Arizona, 6-0. We all know the resume for Phoenix, the explosive side that broke multiple league records. Solomon Asante is the presumptive MVP and Rising FC are loaded with talent across the pitch. They can win this game in a shootout or a close match with a moment of brilliance from one of their star attackers. They did both in their record win streak.
Austin’s best chance will be defending deep, making this match ugly, and potentially striking on a set-piece with forward Andre Lima. They enter the match with only one loss in their final five regular season matches and a shutout win over Los Dos in the play-in round. It’s a tall task to upset Phoenix, but with a single-elimination tournament, anything is possible.
Saturday, 10:30 PM EST, Casino Arizona Field, Phoenix, AZ
#2 Reno 1868 FC vs. #7 Sacramento Republic FC
RNO: Corey Hertzog (18 goals, 76 shots), Seth Casiple (seven assists, 78 chances created), Danny Musovski (11 goals, 26 shots on target)
SAC: Cam Iwasa (16 goals, six assists), Mitchell Taintor (103 clearances, 76 aerial duel wins), Thomas Enevoldsen (13 goals, six assists)
Despite being a top defense by the numbers, Sacramento Republic FC have struggled since Josh Cohen left for Isreal and their defensive stats are a bit misleading. They enter this match with only two wins in their last seven matches, including a win over New Mexico United in the play-in round. They also only have two clean sheets in that stretch of matches. Against Reno, they will need to get back to their roots and play crisp defensively.
That’s because 1868 FC finished third in the league in goals during the regular season and they outscored Sacramento 6-1 in their two matches this season. With forwards Corey Hertzog and Danny Musovski getting service from Seth Casiple and Raul Mendiola, Reno will try to break this match open and test that Sacramento backline and goalkeeper.
Saturday, 8:30 PM EST, Greater Nevada Field, Reno, NV
#3 Fresno FC vs. #6 El Paso Locomotive FC
FRS: Jaime Chavez(12 goals, three assists), Juan Pablo Caffa (64 chances created, six assists), Jemal Johnson (seven goals, four assists)
ELP: Logan Ketterer (12 clean sheets, 33 goals conceded), Jerome Kiesewetter (12 goals, 41 shots), Bryam Rebellon (52 interceptions, 212 duels won)
As it often goes with top-level teams, we have a matchup here of an exciting attacking side against a lockdown defensive unit. Fresno, tied for 12th in the league in goals, host expansion El Paso Locomotive FC, tied for 5th-least goals conceded this season.
With that juxtaposition, the strategy of this match seems obvious. El Paso will look to keep possession of the ball, stay compact on the backline, and take advantage in the attack when a chance presents itself. The expansion side defeated Fresno less than a month ago and they enter the match with only one loss in their last seven matches. The Foxes will want to push the action and allow Juan Pablo Caffa to play the ball through to Jaime Chavez and the strikers. Unfortunately, they will be without Qudus Lawal due to suspension. Will Fresno have the firepower to break down a staunch El Paso defense?
Saturday, 10:30 PM Eastern Time, Chukchansi Park, Fresno, CA
#4 Real Monarchs SLC vs. #5 Orange County SC
SLC: Maikel Chang (71 chances created, 13 goals), Douglas Martinez (16 goals, six assists), Jack Blake (eight goals, 1,387 passes)
OC: Michael Seaton (12 goals, 66 shots), Walker Hume (114 aerial duels won, 86.6% passing accuracy), Aodhan Quinn (62.2 passes per match, seven assists)
Outside of maybe the Louisville City-Tampa Bay match, this is my favorite fixture of the first round. Monarchs SLC finished first-place in the Western Conference in 2017 before losing in the first round to Sacramento Republic FC on penalty kicks. They followed that up last season with a 4th-place finish before losing in the first round again, this time to Reno 1868 FC. This season, they are the fourth-highest scoring side in the league and have only one loss in their last eight matches. Jamison Olave’s side will want to bounce back after their recent playoff failures.
A year after Real Monarchs finished first in the Western Conference, Orange County SC took the regular season crown. They didn’t bow out early in the postseason, rather they battled Phoenix Rising FC to a one-goal defeat in the conference finals. Without Thomas Enevoldsen, Michael Seaton and Darwin Jones have become the dynamic duo in the attack, with Aodhan Quinn provided the service. They find themselves in the good half of the league in both goals scored and conceded. They won nine of their final 11 matches this season and they will be ready to make their way deep into the playoffs again.
Saturday, 3 PM Eastern Time, Zions Bank Stadium, Sandy, UT